Nationale Filosofie Olympiade 2014

22 mrt

Ik heb dit jaar (weer) gewonnen op de Nationale Filosofie Olympiade. Hieronder staat mijn winnende essay.

The idiot’s guide to overcoming language philosophy or how I learned to stop worrying about Wittgenstein


“The Limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractus logico-philosophicus (1921)

Language as a preliminary point in philosophy and self-recognition
The above citation by Wittgenstein has been a cornerstone for a complete school of philosophy of language. It also has been a very defining concept that I once feared to rule my life. Somewhere in the last 4 years I have overcome this idea by reconstructing my perception of language. In this essay I will try to realistically rewrite the steps I have taken as a subject to unbind myself from the fear of language as a limiting construct.

The eternal choking concept of language
Wittgenstein’s main argument in his Tractus can perhaps best be derived as following: since our only way to comprehend the world is by means of language, the limits of language are the foremost limit of how broad we can comprehend the world around us. A very choking concept that can drive any adolescent writer to the depths of a metaphysical crisis. It can actually be overcome by deconstructing Wittgenstein.

Method for deconstruction and reconstruction of Wittgenstein
I would like to argue that in fact, the limits of our language form the foremost preliminary point to our world. Constituted through the subject, language does not define any border as Wittgenstein tastefully argued. In fact, language constitutes our world in a borderless way but is contained by a the subject, the ‘I’. The limits of the subject are the limits of our world. Language in this instance is just a defining tool to deconstruct our limits, but it cannot do so prior to those limits already existing. To demonstrate this I will first deconstruct how Wittgenstein breaks with his predecessors and construct a return to Hegelian metaphysics which functions as the basis of a Lacanian approach to this concept.

A. Pre-Hegelians
Pre-Hegelians (and foremost Descartes) have numerously stated that the boundaries of our world cannot exist inside a vacuum. For anything to be bound there must be a container wherein it exists. Wittgenstein’s spiritual mentor Bertrand Russel quickly went on to discredit this idea by elegantly establishing that in non-Euclidian geometry there in fact can be a limited thing in itself without a border wherein it exists. A smart observation that Wittgenstein deliberately doesn’t recognize for his theory of language to work. Isn’t it lovely to see a scholar break free from the structure of his ideological mentor?! Wittgenstein as a true philosophical rebel.


B. Return to Hegel
In his magnum opus The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel devises a notion of Absolute Spirit wherein the world can be recognized as a Cartesian thing in itself. With this breakthrough Hegel can extract an idea of the absolute without the boundaries of metaphysics (the world is an absolute abstractness, therefor the act of metaphysics fallaciously already recognises that there is a possibility for metaphysics). This unusual anti-Kantian, Kant even went as for to argue for metaphysics as an inherent different discipline than philosophy, stride can be used as an argument against Language as the border of our world. Because if the world is an absolute in itself, language does not construct it – it simply constructs itself – but language can be used to put it into the symbolic order[1].


C. Lacan and his theory of The Real.
By means of the last two paragraphs I have demonstrated A. How Wittgenstein stands from his predecessors and B. how Wittgenstein’s theory of language can be omitted by Hegel’s notion of an absolute spirit. From here on we will touch the true nature of the boundaries of world-view and it’s relation to language. For this broad move I will build upon Lacan’s notion of The Real.

C1. The real as a concept of Absolute Spirit
“We are unfree because we lack the language to define our un-freedom”. This concept from Slavoj Zizek may appear to be similar to Wittgenstein’s citation above, but is in fact substantially different. For Zizek, a dogmatic Lacanian, language is a tool to symbolize a notion of metaphysics that Lacan names The Real. The Real in a way is a conceptualisation of Hegel’s Absolute Spirit. The world is a complete abstraction and subjects use language to make sense of this abstraction – a process I will now refer to as symbolisation, which is a concept that overlaps within Wittgenstein and Lacan.

C2. On the limits of symbolisation
However, not everything in the real can actually be put into symbolisation by language. Some ideas are simply grammatically impossible to construct and some forms of trauma can be sensed but not put into any form of words or symbolisation because it is locked away in human unconsciousness. Unfreedom for Zizek thus means that language connects the subject to his or her inherent lack, not the lack of their sense of their world. In fact, this world is complete (and the subject can feel and think outside of the limits of language) but it cannot use language to construct the boundaries itself.

D. The end of Wittgenstein; the start of subjectivity
This is where Wittgenstein falls apart[2]. We do actually comprehend in, a very serrated manner, things that cannot be symbolised into language. Thus language isn’t the boundary keeping us from an absolute idea of the world. The real boundary is the inherent lack a subject lives with, this is the true boundary of any contemporary perception of the world. If anything language connects us to that boundary – it doesn’t establish the boundary itself. For the subject, or more specifically for me, language is hence not the key problem holding back any form of comprehensive worldview. The limits of my subjectivity, mean the limits of my world.

[1]  the process of symbolisation is briefly described in C1

[2] Arguably for the second time, since his disregard for Russel’s argument against pre-Hegelians already renders a flaw in itself. See A.

(Drawing: Fade – Jan-Willem van der Boom,

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